Little Abhay had tears in his eyes because his father could not afford the small Rath Yatra cart which Abhay was so eager to buy. Abhay loved Rath Yatra festival and so he wanted to perform his own Rath Yatra. But it seemed his plans won’t materialize. An old Bengali lady saw Abhay crying and when she came to know why he was crying she showed Abhay and his father an old cart which was cheap and good enough to serve the purpose. Abhay was delighted. He along with his playmates, family members and neighbours nicely decorated the cart, put Lord Jagannath on it and celebrated the Rath Yatra festival at his home in Kolkata.
No one would have imagined that the same little Abhay, who later came to be known as Srila Prabhupada all over the world, after several years will lay the foundation of a mammoth Rath Yatra festival in the city of Kolkata. Iskcon Kolkata celebrated its first Rath Yatra festival in 1972 and this year it was the 48th Rath Yatra festival. Since beginning the festival has caught the imagination of thousands of people of Kolkata. In the year 1972 the residents of Kolkata were mesmerized to see white American and European devotees dressed in dhoti and kurta singing and dancing during the Rath Yatra procession. And since then every year the festival has grown in size and its reach. Today not just the local Bengali people participate but people from different cities of India and even outside India come for the festival.
This year the festival caught the attention of entire nation and was widely covered in print and electronic media when Iskcon decided to invite Nusrat Jahan Ruhi Jain, a newly elected Member of Parliament to Lok Sabha, as one of the guests for Rath Yatra inauguration along with Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister, who was the chief Guest.
Nusrat Jahan, Muslim by birth, had won appreciation when she wore a vermillion (sindoor), and mangalasutra ( sacred necklace which married Hindu women wears) while taking oath in Parliament. While majority of people appreciated her for her inclusive approach but she also invited the wrath of few hardline Muslim clerics whom she ignored.
Thanking Iskcon for giving the opportunity to participate in Rath Yatra, she said, “I will pray to Lord Jagannath for the well-being of all the people of West Bengal. I wish everyone comes together to pull the lord’s chariot,” https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/tmc-mp-nusrat-jahan-attends-iskcon-rath-yatra-calls-for-unity/articleshow/70071315.cms
Krishna Consciousness movement never ever discriminates people on the basis of caste, creed, religion, nationality or gender. So people in general all over the world appreciates the message of social harmony which Iskcon is working hard to spread. Srila Prabhupada taught that we all are children of same God and so we should coexist with each other like brothers and sisters. Today when the world is witnessing rise in sectarianism teachings of Srila Prabhupada can help to unite the world. And festivals like Rath Yatra where people from diverse socio economic background participate to make the event successful plays an important role in spreading the message of peace and unity. During Kolkata Rath Yatra people from diverse religious background get involved to organize the event. From construction and decoration of the three chariots to setting up of beautiful pandal at Gundicha temple to ensuring smooth supply of essential items all work together.
Just like in Jagannath Puri here also the mula vigraha of Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva and Subhadra Devi come out of the temple to enthrone the three huge chariots. This year the festival was celebrated on 4th July and thousands of devotees participated in this wonderful event.
Before the start of the procession cultural programs were performed in front of the chariots. The three deities were carried by the devotees from the temple to the chariots amidst beating of drums and Hare Krishna kirtan. Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, along with important guests and senior Iskcon dignitaries flagged off the Rath Yatra by pulling the ropes of the chariots amidst the loud chanting of Jay Jagannath.
Devotees who were patiently waiting to get an opportunity to pull the Rath immediately got into action and enthusiastically started pulling the ropes. The Lord of the universe majestically sitting on the huge chariot thus began travelling through the streets of Kolkata showering his mercy upon thousands of people.
The roads were bedecked with colourful rangolis. Hundreds of ladies carrying arati plates were sanctifying the pathway by blowing conch shells, sprinkling holy water and throwing flower petals on the road. To welcome the Lord devotees were singing Suswagatam Jagannath, Suswagatam Baladeva, Suswagatam Subhdra. Throughout the procession devotees were singing, dancing, playing cymbals and mridangas. Many people who had congregated on the way to see the procession could not resist themselves and they too joined the devotees and began dancing and chanting the names of Lord Krishna and Lord Jagannath. As it was a working day the working people took a short break from their offices and came down to pull the chariots.
Srila Prabhupada wanted that his books which logically delineates the message of Krishna should be widely distributed. So there were dozens of small sized carts carrying books accompanied the procession. Devotees were reaching out to people and were inspiring them to buy the books which has the potential to transform their lives for good. Hundreds of books were distributed during the journey.
The procession was colourful and lively. The loud but melodious chant of Hare Krishna touched the hearts of thousands of souls. The three giant chariots travelled through the streets and lanes of Kolkata for around 5 hours and reached TAI Brigade Ground, which is one of the largest open parks in Kolkata, at around 6:30 p.m.
A makeshift Gundicha temple has been constructed at the Brigade Ground and various stalls have been set up around the temple. The three deities are currently staying in Gundicha temple. Everyday Lord Jagannath is dressed differently to depict his different pastimes. Someday he is dressed as Lord Krishna lifting Govardhan on his left hand, someday he takes the form of Lord Vishnu riding on Garuda to save Gajendra, the elephant, and so on. Lord Jagannath is the Lord of the universe, he is none other than Krishna and is the protector of anyone and everyone who seeks his shelter. A beautiful smiling deity of Srila Prabhupada in front of Lord Jagannath wins everyone’s hearts. A huge chandelier in the center of the temple brightens up the temple.
This year the theme of Rath Yatra is “Empowering the Elderly.” India’s great spiritual tradition teaches us to protect the elderly people. One of the most celebrated sons in Indian history is Sravan Kumar who carried his old and blind parents on his shoulders to different places of pilgrimage. But unfortunately as Kali Yuga entered and the society became too materialistic some people stopped taking care of their parents and other elder members of the family. Elderly men and women who have given their best to the society during their prime needs to be taken care in a best possible way. In this Rath Yatra Iskcon wanted to highlight the challenges which our elderly friends are facing and also wanted to spread the message that they should be protected and loved. An art exhibition was held wherein the artists used their creativity to show different shades of the life of elderly people – their life’s journey, their transition from being an active member of the society to leading a retired life, their struggles & challenges during old age, their vulnerabilities, how the society can come together to bring hope and happiness in their life and how we can enrich our lives through their knowledge and plethora of experience.
Various cultural programs are being held in which children are participating in large numbers. Well known classical dancers are performing different dance forms like bharatanatyam, kathak, kathakali, Manipuri, mohiniyattam and Odissi. Everyday talks are being given by senior Iskcon Sannyasis such as HH Jaypataka Swami Maharaj, HH Bhakti Charu Swami Maharaj, HH Bhakti Purushottam Swami Maharaj and by other senior devotees.
The three chariots standing in the middle of the parade ground is attracting all. 108 bricks have been laid around the chariots and the people especially those who are visiting for the first time are requested to walk over the bricks and while walking they are requested to chant one Hare Krishna Mahamantra as they put their foot on a brick. Thus once they complete the journey they chant 108 mantras.
Thousands throng daily to worship the Lord and participate in various cultural programs. Mahaprasadam stall, Govindas counter, Bhakti Vriksha stall, Iskcon Youth Forum stall, Kids zone, Perfect Question Perfect Answer booth, Book Distribution stall, Matchless Gift shop are also major attraction and large number of people visit there.
Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva and Subhadra Devi are currently enjoying their stay at Gundicha temple and will return back to Sri Sri Radha Govinda Temple on 12th July which is the day of Ulta Rath Yatra.
(Purushottam Nitai Das is a member of congregation at Iskcon Kolkata. He works at IBM as an Advisory Consultant. He writes at http://www.discoverursupersoul.com)